Up until now, I thought the most ill-timed publication of a book award went to my friend Bill Ayers. His book, Fugitive Days, an account of his years in The Weather Underground included, among many other events of the time, stories of the group’s bombings of public buildings to protest the Viet Nam war. The book emerged just as The Twin Towers were falling on 9/11/2001.
Bill now has a worthy competitor in Nathan Thrall, whose book A Day in the Life of Abed Salama was recently published close to another date that “will live in infamy,” October 7, 2023, the day when terrorists breached the borders between Gaza and Israel and massacred more than a thousand Israeli civilians. I need to tell you something about the book, which I’m currently reading, in order for you to understand my comments about unfortunate timing.
Full disclosure. Thrall is a close friend of my daughter and son-in-law. In fact, he wrote some of this book in their Jerusalem apartment during their semesters away in the US. For a long time, he directed the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project. During that time, he published extensively on the apartheid – yes, that’s the only way to label it – legal system which governs Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian population. At some point he decided that these scholarly technical writings failed to capture the desperation and humiliation that pervades Palestinian lives under Israeli rule.
The result was a real departure from Thrall’s earlier work – a long essay in the New York Review of Books with the same title as the recently published book, which is a major expansion of the original piece centering on the experiences of a distraught Palestinian father whose son is involved in a horrific school bus accident. It’s not just a human-interest story so much as it is an attempt to show how politics affects every aspect of our lives, in this case the life of a Palestinian man living under Israeli control. I can speak with some authority about a book I have not yet finished reading because I read the original article and know where the story is headed.
So, why is the birth of this book so ill-timed? I have a strong suspicion that potential readers will not be primed to hear sympathetically about the injustices inflicted on Palestinians while their eyes and ears are filled with the horror of the last few days. In the last hour, I have listened on NPR to the account of a rave, a dance party on a kibbutz near the border to the Gaza Strip, where the terrorists slaughtered more than 260 young revelers, as well as an online story in Haaretz about Kibbutz Cfar Azza, almost in sight of Gaza City for which it is named. Virtually every member of that community was murdered or kidnapped by the invaders. In effect, this bucolic community has ceased to exist. None of the pogroms in late 19th and early 20th century Russia which led millions of Jews to flee the country exacted a toll anywhere close to that of Cfar Azza.
I am at once horrified, depressed and overcome by a boiling rage at what the terrorists from Gaza have perpetrated. My own daughter and son-in-law in Jerusalem could easily have been part of the casualty rate, as is true for our other friends and relatives who are citizens of that troubled country.
I needed to say that before what comes next. Whenever there is a mass shooting in the U.S., many politicians are quick to say some version of the following: “This is not the time to talk politics. We should just be grieving for those we’ve lost.” Yes, but… this may in fact be the time to combine our grief with some acknowledgement of what brought us to this moment. There is a long back story stretching back to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, through the ’67 War which transformed Israel into an occupying power and right up to the recent events triggered by the most racist right-wing government in the country’s history.
Add to all this the unique struggles of the people of Gaza, imprisoned between Egypt and Israel and periodically decimated by a superpower whose might makes them feel all the more powerless. To be clear, I’m talking about the long-suffering residents of Gaza, separate from Hamas. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Gaza right now because of Hamas’s barbaric and brutal actions during the invasion which no prior history of oppression can justify. There’s a part of my non-violent self that can understand the impulse to seek revenge, but the result of those moments of release is to alienate the sympathies of many who might otherwise recognize the justification for their actions.
The other unfortunate result of Hamas’s sadism is that it grants license to Israel to heed the cries of so many of its aggrieved citizens to “wipe out Gaza and Hamas.” That will result in the deaths of so many more Palestinian citizens of this impacted and suffering population, as well as the deaths of countless young Israelis among the invading forces. We can’t allow the atrocities of October 7 to drive us to similar barbarism. How have we failed to recognize over the last 75 years that the people in Thrall’s book, as well as the citizens of Gaza and all Israelis, deserve peace and prosperity for themselves and their children?
I may be criticized for expressing compassion for those who are cast as our arch-villains, but we have to acknowledge some responsibility for how we have arrived at this tragic juncture. Doing so does not in any way justify the criminality and inhumanity of what Hamas has done, but how do we find a way to break the cycle? Inflicting more death and destruction is not the answer. In fact, it seems to be exactly what Hamas would like to see happen – with little concern about the fate of Gaza’s civilians.
A word of caution to my American Jewish compatriots. My email is full of expressions of solidarity with Israel from individuals and organizations. That’s as it should be at this terrible moment, but let’s not forget that, in time, Israel will have to reflect on its own culpability, beginning with dispatching its current racist government and proceeding to a deeper examination of the treatment of Palestinians described in Thrall’s work. For American Jews, standing in solidarity does not have to mean wearing blinders to injustice.